Generous or severe interpretation

In the book Paths of Love the question is touched upon about how to interpret the Fathers when they seem negative towards marriage. Here is another example of how we may interpret a theologian in two quite different ways, one positive and the other negative.

St. Alphonsus de Liguori, writing to a woman deliberating about whether or not to become a religious, gives a very stark response :

Live Jesus, Mary, Joseph

Arienzo, September 27, 1769.

I answer your letter.
A young person can save her soul by remaining in the world; but it cannot be denied, that in the world, especially at the present time, there are many more dangers of committing sin and losing one’s soul.
The rule then to follow is this. If any person loves chastity, she ought to choose what is more perfect, that is, she should consecrate her virginity to Jesus Christ. By acting thus, she will be much less exposed to damn herself; and this is the counsel that I give you…

Alfonso Maria,
Bishop of Sant’ Agata.

Advice like this is sometimes rejected out of hand, on the grounds that the reason St. Alphonsus thinks like this, is that he almost sees marriage as the lesser of two evils (being less bad than fornication), and doesn't appreciate the goodness of marriage.

But whatever true there is in the claim that St. Alphonsus doesn't appreciate the goodness of marriage (as indeed there is some truth to it), it is somewhat simplistic, and ultimately incorrect to suppose that his position derives from this lack of appreciation. Rather, he is doing nothing other than trying to express what Christ himself expresses, when speaking about voluntary and perpetual celibacy, he says "Him who can take it, let him take it!" And again St. Paul, saying, "Whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control," and resolves to remain single for the sake of the kingdom of God, "he will do well" (1 Cor 7:37).

Naturally when a theologian speaks about the superiority of celibacy or virginity to marriage, if he does have any kind of negative view of marriage, this view will probably become manifest. But it is erroneous to therefore think that his positive position, argument, or claim is based upon this negative view.

In all cases we should be inclined to a generous interpretation, rather than a critical one. It is not only more charitable, but also usually more accurate. This applies above all when it comes to the saints; when it is possible to interpret what they say so as to be true and good, we should generally do so.

Read more texts of St. Alphonsus – more balanced texts on vocation.

2 thoughts on “Generous or severe interpretation”

  1. I know this is an older post, but I assume you are notified when someone comments.

    Are we to assume that St. Alphonsus was saying that even if one is not cut out for religious life, then it would be MORE dangerous to their soul to marry? That one should simply remain single? Did he really think that the ONLY reason for marriage was to avoid fornication? What of the bonum sacramenti?

    This strikes me as odd, because as I understand it, I thought Liguori was less rigorous than many of his contemporaries on the subject of marriage (for example, he was one of the first to say that a married couple need no "excuse" to have sex).

    Could it really be that he had such a low view of marriage that he thought it would be better for one's soul to remain a non-religious single? And on a different note – were there any Saints who saw the CHOICE to marry as something good in itself, or only as a concession to weakness? More importantly, what was Paul actually saying there?

    I think many young, devout, unmarried Catholic men in their 20s and 30s are certainly CAPABLE of avoiding sexual sin (they're commanded to, after all, and usually are praying to stay pure). Is it really true that in the first 1900+ years of the Church's existence, these men would have always been counseled to avoid marriage?

    Is/was the idea really "well, you're capable of avoiding sex, so it's best to never get married anyway"? In the Fathers, we even see the idea that the married should avoid sex as much as possible if they can, and only come together when they want to have a child or can't help but fornicate. Would you say the Church has fully developed past this way of thinking, or could it ever come back? And how do we know that the writings and counsels of recent popes and theologians are more authoritative over and above the counsels of the Saints?

  2. Also, as I mentioned in a comment in another post about married saints – why does it seem that for a long time holiness for marrieds meant giving up sexual relations (Jerome and Augustine seem to take this as a given)? Augustine, for example, says a man may vow to have relations with only one woman, but it's an even greater if one vows to no longer have relations with her.

    I get the impression that this was very common advice in the Early Church (along with "have sex as little as possible and with as little desire as possible"). However, I do not think there is a spiritual director alive today who would ever counsel a married couple to give up relations unless there were very very very clear signs they were called to do so.

    What changed (if anything really did change – perhaps it just appears so), and why did it take almost 2 whole millennia to arrive at this conclusion?

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